Let’s check out the pet store (Monkey Fun)

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Note: This post was written a hair over two weeks after I realized I was trans. I’m not sure that has any visible impact on the post, but on the other hand, how could it not?

It’s still September 27, 1997, and…

No.

I can’t do this.

I can’t not ask this question.

What the fuck is that title? “Monkey Fun”? Is it supposed to sound dirty? Was it a joke title they forgot to change? Because it is a uniquely terrible title–it sounds like it ought to be a pun or a reference to something while utterly failing to refer to anything whatsoever. Titano isn’t even a monkey; he is visibly, obviously a chimp!

So the title just leaves you out there dangling, searching for meaning that doesn’t exist. Which on some episodes might work, but on a fun piece of cotton-candy Silver-Age froth like this, really, really doesn’t.

But, with that off my chest, let’s dive into this.

This episode is most interesting as a superior rework of the same concept as “The Prometheon”–a giant monster from space terrorizes the city, but it’s not evil, just a creature doing what it does by nature. But this episode does a far better job of being a “sympathetic villain” story, and in so doing shows how Superman: The Animated Seriescan approach that Batman: The Animated Series staple.

The key is that BTAS is psychologically complex, and so its sympathetic villain episodes are about people in extreme situations who respond by doing terrible things–they are explorations of the psychology of villainy, which necessarily requires empathizing with the villain, and usually building that empathy results in audience sympathy as well.

STAS is not psychologically complex. Characters have big, singular motivations; for all that we talk about Superman as a reification of Kal-El’s  trauma (which he is), he ultimately is summed up in a single word: he is the Protector, plain and simple. Lex Luthor has no tragic backstory or complex motivation; he just wants to control and possess everything he sees.

So that can’t be what an STAS sympathetic villain story is about–and without a psyche to delve into, how can the audience empathize with the villain? Sympathy must come from elsewhere, and this episode finds three places to derive it. First is the same as that attempted in “The Prometheon”: Titano has no idea of the damage he’s causing. He is just an animal acting on its instincts.

But as “The Prometheon” shows, that alone is not enough, and so the episode tries something different by employing one simple reversal: it’s Superman who just wants to beat the monkey up, and General Lane who brings the key to peacefully shutting the monkey down–not in his role as a military man, but as Lois’ father.

And yes, I did just type “it’s Superman who just wants to beat the monkey,” because his actions in this episode are perfectly masturbatory: he is protecting people from Titano, but doing so in a way that exacerbates Titano’s rampage. The protector fantasy turns easily into the fantasy that something is a threat we need protecting from, and oftentimes leads to the manufacture of that very threat. Superheroes create their own villains; fear-driven societies create their own enemies.

Add in Titano’s bond with Lois–the fact that we first see him as a fun, gentle playmate to a small child, so that we can recognize the same behaviors when he grows enormous–and we have a perfect recipe for sympathy. Superman is now in General Hardcastle’s former role as the over-aggressive protector, which is to say a bully, and so we sympathize with Titano as the innocent victim.

Which, in turn, reveals why sympathetic villain stories, in general, just don’t work for STAS: its simpler aesthetic means that in order for a villain to be sympathetic, Superman must be unsympathetic. Where sympathetic villain stories frequently show Batman as his best (“Baby Doll” being, as always, the standout example here), they show Superman at his worst.

Which makes them indispensable for us.

After all, it takes only a perspective shift to turn Superman into General Hardcastle. A slight difference in how events play out, and he becomes the alternate Superman of “Brave New Metropolis.” There is less daylight between him and Mala or Jax-Ur than it once appeared. We saw in “Brave New Metropolis” how ill-suited he is to the role of revolutionary, and here we see that he really isn’t on the side of the innocent at all–given a threat to the innocent posed by the innocent, he is on the side against the threat.

What Lois shouts to Superman when he flies off to fight Titano is telling, here: “He’s just a baby!” That is how the episode positions Titano, as essentially childlike–confused, frightened, hungry, clumsy, and fond of his stuffed animal. Superman, in other words, is willing to hurt a child to protect the Children–he is more interested in maintaining peace and order than determining the right of a situation and acting accordingly. Superman’s actions here are precisely what I meant when, long ago, I described Fredric Wortham as a superhero.

And so our challenge becomes clearer and clearer: can we salvage something of the rich, vibrant superhero tradition without falling into this trap of valuing abstract social order over concrete, material good? The answer may well be no–but we have a long way to go yet, and the answer may very well be yes.

 


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